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Medical center scraps its plans for relocation

Sept 10,2019
The National Medical Center announced Sunday that it will scrap a plan to move south of the Han River, which had been negotiated on with relevant government bodies for the past 16 years, citing a waste of resources and lack of response from the government.

“We have repeatedly made our position clear that the new location of the medical center is not suitable,” the medical center said in its statement on Sunday, “because its immediate surroundings are occupied by crematoriums and the Gyeongbu Expressway and because it is to be located between Gangnam and Bundang, which are regions already saturated with hospitals and clinics.

“Additionally, we have to pay astronomical costs of building noise-canceling facilities [due to proximity to the highway], yet the Ministry and Health and Welfare and Seoul Metropolitan Government are delaying their decision-making process and wasting our time and energy. We hereby put a stop to the plan to move to Wonji-dong.”

The plan to move the center from its current location in Jongno District, central Seoul, to Wonji-dong in Seocho District, southern Seoul, dates back to 2003.

The National Medical Center was established in 1958 as the first public medical center in the country. It grew out of a multinational effort among Sweden, Norway and Denmark to provide medical services to the UN forces and local citizens during and after the Korean War (1950-53).

The plan to develop the National Medical Center into one of the top national hospitals in the country was first formed in 2003 during the Roh Moo-hyun administration, according to the center.

Instead of expanding the center where it is currently located, the Ministry of Health and Welfare in 2003 decided to move the center to an area in Wonji-dong.

The decision was put forward to address a dispute between the Seoul city government and residents of Seocho District.

In 2001, Seoul Metropolitan Government announced its decision to build a large cemetery in an unoccupied green space in Wonji-dong. For this, it gained approval from the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport.

The local residents protested the plan, stating that having a cemetery nearby will bring down the real estate price of the area and sued the city government.

As the case was ongoing at the Seoul Administrative Court, the Health Ministry suggested bringing the National Medical Center to Wonji-dong to appease the local residents.

In October 2003, the Seoul Administrative Court ruled in favor of the city government’s plan to build the cemetery. The city government then officially announced its intention to bring in the National Medical Center as well as the cemetery to Wonji-dong.

Some local residents of Seocho, still opposing the plan, filed a suit against the Land Ministry in 2005 to cancel its approval to develop Wonji-dong into a cemetery. That case went to the Supreme Court, which ruled in 2007 that the land could be developed.

But the plan to bring the National Medical Center to the area was stalled when the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport said it approved the land development for a cemetery, not for a medical center. In 2008, the Land Ministry finally issued its approval to develop the land for both uses.

The final plan was then set to build the expanded National Medical Center in the area by 2022, alongside a cemetery and necessary facilities such as crematoriums.

The construction for the cemetery began in 2009, and the construction for crematoriums began in 2012.

But when Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) swept through the country in 2015, the Health Ministry designated the National Medical Center as the national isolation ward for infectious diseases, which led to the residents of Seocho taking up a fresh battle against the plan, claiming they do not want an infectious disease ward in their neighborhood.

“The plan to move and expand the center has become even more complicated and bleak after this new opposition,” the center said in its statement. “Then we had new troubles because a test result showed that we cannot build a building higher than two stories high in the area due to the level of noise from Gyeongbu Expressway and that is even if we build a noise-canceling wall.”

“The city government of Seoul and the Health Ministry have for months failed to address this issue and are delaying decisions,” the center said. “The National Medical Center decided not to wait and observe this meaningless discussion, and instead of wasting our resources on the moving plan, we decided to focus on developing the center into a major public health institute.”

The Seoul city government and Health Ministry denied stalling the process.

“I don’t think the medical center can decide to scrap the plan in a one-sided manner,” Nah Baek-joo, head of the citizen health bureau of the Seoul Metropolitan Government, told the JoongAng Ilbo. “We’ll continue the project to move the center.”

“The medical center may be frustrated with the process, but it has no power to scrap the plan,” an official of the Health Ministry told the JoongAng Ilbo. “There are issues regarding the noise and buying new land to cope with more expansion than originally planned, and we cannot solve them all at once but the ministry will continue to work with the Seoul city government for the project.”

BY ESTHER CHUNG, LEE SANG-JAI [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]